Conflict in Liberia increases number of Sierra Leonean refugees returning home
JENDEMA, Sierra Leone, Dec. 26 (UNHCR) - The intensifying conflict between anti-government rebels and regular Liberian army troops, and reports that Liberian soldiers were harassing refugees, prompted a sharp increase in the number of Sierra Leoneans returning home in recent weeks.
Small numbers of civilians from both Liberia and Sierra Leone are also fleeing the fighting in northern Lofa County and crossing into Sierra Leone, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
An estimated 1,300 Sierra Leoneans have returned home from the Sinje II camp through the Jendema border crossing north-west of the Liberian capital of Monrovia since December 17, marking a net increase over the dozen or so people who were previously going home each day.
Returnees reported being harassed by Liberian Army soldiers who entered the Sinje II refugee camp, situated about 80 kilometres north-west of Monrovia. Other factors causing refugees to flee include fears, thus far unsubstantiated, that the conflict in Lofa County may spread to the south of the country where the refugee camps are situated.
The improved security conditions in Sierra Leone have also contributed to the increase in returns, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Sinje Camps I and II, which were hosting about 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees, recorded 1,500 new arrivals during the past few days, mostly from Lofa County. UNHCR set up a holding centre in Karnga, about 12 kilometres from the Sinje Camps, where growing numbers of refugees are hosted in a market hall. They are then transferred to Sinje, where two transit sites and 102 new shelters have been constructed and food and relief items brought in.
Liberia hosts a total of 30,000 assisted Sierra Leonean refugees in six camps, with an equal number spread between Lofa County and Monrovia. Any mass return, coupled with the arrivals of Liberian refugees, would put pressure on the already limited reception capacities in Sierra Leone.
UNHCR estimated the reception capacity in eastern Sierra Leone could be increased to 4,600 people if sufficient material and shelters are made available. Additional trucks are being mobilised to raise the transport capacity from the border to between 1,500 to 1,800 persons a week.